Gardening: Now my trolley runneth over

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The Independent Online
It was not until I came to live here that I realised how good supermarkets are. In London (until I capitulated and bought my neighbour's ancient Austin Maxi), I religiously pedalled my trike around a parade which had a Greek greengrocer, an Italian deli and an Indian grocer so proud of his origins that he took his son to Bombay for his first haircut.

Anyway, once here, I dramatically changed my shopping habits. There is an organic farm nearby, run by people so free of anything New Age, whose fields are so medieval in their variety that I am bound to buy at least some produce there. But I am not a big believer in the strictly organic view, partly because I cannot afford the prices, and partly because I do not believe the stuff is better than the produce of ordinary farms, though I love to see lots of manure deployed.

Besides, I fell in love with Safeway in Hereford. What surprised me was the amount of good English things on sale, and especially the company's attempts to find a middle way for animal farming. I have not much sympathy with the views of a local author, Rebecca Hall, who wrote a book, Animals Are Equal, and who, before Christmas, offered pounds 10,000 to anyone who would live for a while in a battery cage (hens may not like battery cages, but I cannot see how a person could begin to know the truth of the matter by sharing their circumstances).

However, since half the farmers in this countryside make half their money from birds in vast sheds, which supply meat to Sun Valley in Hereford (and thence half the country's supermarkets and fast-food outlets), one is constantly reminded to think about what it is right to eat.

I began to feel that supermarkets might play a big part in helping British farmers to grow better crops and to rear animals in kinder ways. A few years ago, I went to see Alistair Grant, the chairman of Argyll, which owns Safeway, and we talked about his plans for advancing these benign trends. Afterwards, he asked what I was reading and I raved about a 19th-century Spanish novelist, Emilia Pardo Baza, and her book The House of Ulloa.

Grant said I should read the American, Edith Wharton, and promptly sent me The Custom of the Country. Wharton was a revelation. I am longing to see what Scorsese has made of The Age of Innocence. She writes like a Henry James with balls. Her plots are melodramatic, her aphorisms a little undergraduate. But on petticoat rule, women's entrapment by men, and the hopeless ambition of foolish lovely women, she is unparalleled. She is also wonderful on everybody's desperate failure to say and do at the right moment the thing which is true to them and necessary to the happiness of their partnerships.

There is something about American creativity of the period that I am learning to relish. For a couple of years I have rattled round American art galleries, loving the cowboy-and-Indian paintings of the realists. But somehow I missed Thomas Eakins, though I must have seen things of his at the Philadelphia Academy of Art. So I am glad John Hayes, the retiring director of the National Portrait Gallery, gave himself the farewell present of a big show of Eakins's (until 23 January).

Like Wharton, Eakins knew a lot about the modern scientific attitude. Like his hero, Rembrandt, he painted medical operations. His portraits of a physicist and a chemist are fabulous homages to inquiry. His portraits of oarsmen are beautiful evocations of anatomy at work. In Philadelphia, young people lovingly restore traditional Delaware sailing dinghies. Eakins loved them, too, and his sailing-boat paintings evoke the bliss that comes to people when their weight and eye and muscle work with the wind to propel exquisite hulls through the water.

Eakins was accused of sexual abuse of his niece (who killed herself), and outraged Philadelphia provincialism by ripping the loincloth from a male model for his female students. The eroticism in his paintings is always voyeuristic and subverted. He was a troubled man, I think. His portrait of his wife makes me think of a Wharton heroine as Wharton would have flinched from portraying her. Steadfast but pained (indeed, close to tears), her look says: 'You have made me suffer, but I stand by you.' It is not far from the look a Tammy Wynette heroine would have, though it is seen in a crinoline rather than a truckstop.

The problems on which Wharton and Eakins work seem to me entirely fresh, and I plunder them with fearful relish. I pay my debt to Grant for his introduction to Wharton by sometimes picking the dented tin of beans from the shelf in Safeway. It is the least I can do. My debt to the NPG is even greater: I use it as a left-luggage office on my forays to the Smoke. I am thinking of offering them the portrait of The North Family in London, painted by Pete Webb.